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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Thursday, April 16, 2009 8:46 am
His Party Hat Has Horns On It
Posted by: Keir Graff

Like a lot of people, I’ve been guided on my writing journey by Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. According to Geoffrey K. Pullum’s eye-opening expose in The Chronicle of Higher Education, however (“50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice“), I’ve been had. Describing “the overopinionated and underinformed” book’s authors as “a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules,” Pullum wields his red pen like a samurai sword.

The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn.

Furthermore, he bemoans the anxiety caused by all this egregious flouting:

It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.

After having read this, however, I’m now more anxious than ever. My new, mumbled mantra: that which whom neither nor lay lie . . . (repeat ad nauseam).

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